Paula Santiago: Septum

Paula Santiago: Septum
Iturralde Gallery
Los Angles, California

Septum (January 18 – February 23, 2002) was Santiago’s second solo show at the Iturralde Gallery; the first, Moan, was on display in 1999. Born and based in Guadalajara, Mexico, Paula Santiago’s artistic career began, as many do, with several false starts; first she was a student of Industrial Design and then a painter. Leaving school in Mexico, Santiago travelled to Paris and London, studying literature and art history at the Sorbonne and later worked in the studio of the Nicaraguan artist, Armando Morales, in London.

In 1996 a grant from the ArtPace Foundation from Contemporary Art in San Antonio, Texas, spurred Santiago’s move away from painting and a return to the materials she had seen her relatives use in her childhood. Needle and thread replaced brush and canvas. The influence and legacy of these textile experiments is palpable in much of her mature work.

Her first solo show at the Iturralde Gallery displayed a collection of clothes embroidered and stained with a substance that come to define and ultimately redefine her work: blood. From her time in Texas and for many years to follow, Santiago harvested her own blood to stain the surface of her drawings on rice paper. She would often then embroider the paper, replacing traditional embroidery floss with human hair. The emotional impact of such visceral materials is undeniable.

The years of harvesting her own blood came to an abrupt end for Santiago when she was diagnosed with skin cancer. The disease provoked a great change in the materials and emotion of her work. Instead of darkness and absence, healing and repair became evident. Drawings previously stained with Santiago’s blood were reworked, covering fluid stained surfaces with a translucent wax that protects without concealing the materials beneath. Many of these works were then cut into strips and reassembled as the partially woven and wax-covered forms displayed in Septum. The strip weavings are combined with organic forms echoing bones and interior cavities, suggesting but not quite resembling figurative human forms.

Much of her work in Septum, as well as that which predates it, speaks to many of the theoretical concepts developed by French Feminism over the past 30 years. Taking the physical body as the starting point, French Feminism sees the female body as a “leaky vessel”. This is captured in Luce Irigaray’s concept of the “placental economy”. Santiago’s intentional harvesting and later covering of bodily fluids creates a system of exchange, of give and take, as in the exchange of fluids between mother and child.

Irigaray’s notion of an unspecified boundary that cannot or does not function in a single manner is captured in Santiago’s wax covered forms. Born first from the fluid stains demanded by her earlier work, these alter transformations embody an exchange. While the wax protects the fluid stains it makes no effort to conceal or deny its presence, acting instead like a protective layer of skin that draws one’s attention to the substances beneath the surface.

Separating the rice paper into strips and weaving them together buries the stains in the fabric of the new work. The amalgam of these products and the additional wax-encrusted forms draws one closer to the corporeal and ultimately to the illusive meaning behind Santiago’s bone- and orifice-like forms. In addition, the woven passages in these works echo the earlier tradition of embroidery to which Santiago turned in a search for her own expression. She has in effect produced a “placental economy” between the known processes of sewing and weaving and the unknown world the artist and these works now inhabit.

In Irigaray’s words, “One would have to listen with another ear, as if hearing an ‘other meaning’ always in the process of weaving itself, of embracing itself with words, but also of getting rid of words in order not to become fixed, congealed in them.” The constant flow between familiarity and the unknown is the new world from which Santiago speaks.

Arguably, the action of picking up needle and thread could be embedded in the subconscious, conditioned by the millennia in which men and women have found personal and productive expression through thread and cloth. By celebrating this fact, Santiago has arrived at her own conclusions, and now speaks through a voice undeniably her own.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2002: 52-53)